Buying a Portable Computer: Laptops vs. Notebooks


Do you plan on going laptop shopping? And if you’re feeling overwhelmed by all the options, here’s some guidance.

First, let’s review processors so I can get into the nitty-gritty later. Keep in mind that the laptop’s price is primarily determined by the CPU (together with the size of the screen). Intel and AMD are the two most prominent CPU manufacturers (there is also Apple, but for this discussion, we will focus on mainstream laptops). Intel’s Pentium CPUs are widely used in computers nowadays (”Intel inside” ting tong ting!). Mobile Pentium 4 (essentially a desktop P4 CPU), Pentium M (low voltage cups that boost battery life and are expressly intended for laptops), and the Mobile Celeron processor (poor man’s P4 CPU) are the three main CPUs available for notebooks. But wait, you object; you failed to mention the Centrino CPU. This is because Centrino is a technology and not a processor. Pentium M processor, Intel 855 chipset, and Intel’s Wireless Pro (802.11b) all form Centrino. AMD is the other major player, and its processors are competitive with Intel’s. While AMD processors have historically experienced heat issues, this has been less of a concern as of late. In terms of resale value, Intel processors are your best bet.

My next question is: what are your plans for the laptop? Will you use it for tasks like word processing, spreadsheet creation, and web browsing? Invest in a Celeron processor. Invest in a Pentium M laptop if your computer needs are more demanding, you plan to travel frequently, and you want to use the computer while its battery powers it. Centrino and Pentium M laptops (to which wireless technology can be added through a PCMCIA card) are good options if you require wireless connectivity. Get a Mobile P4 laptop if you won’t be moving it around often or want a gaming laptop. A Mobile P4 laptop will perform like a desktop, making it hefty and hot.

Now that you’ve settled on the processor consider the display’s dimensions. The ”sweet spot” today is 15 inches. However, you can opt for screens of several sizes. Pick a size that works for your wallet. These days, unless you’re looking for an ultraportable (read: pricey) laptop, a screen size of 14 inches or less is probably too small. The larger the display, the more enjoyable the gaming experience. Spreadsheet ninjas and desktop publishing pros can also benefit from larger displays.

RAM (random-access memory) comes up next. Windows XP, preinstalled on most laptops, requires a minimum of 256 MB of RAM to function properly. To get the most out of everything, a 512-memory increase is essential. The more RAM your laptop has, the faster it will run. Increasing the amount of RAM is recommended to boost your computer’s performance without replacing the motherboard or processor.

The graphics memory is something else to think about. Dedicated video memory and shared architecture are also viable options. If your graphics card has dedicated memory, it can use its RAM rather than “begging” for space in the computer’s main memory. Generalization: dedicated memory equals high throughput. Gamers and desktop publishing gents alike must demand dedicated memory. Graphics chips by ATI Mobility Radeon and Nvidia GeForce are highly recommended. More video storage space is always preferable. A laptop with 32 megabytes or more of video memory is recommended. These days, shared architecture (like Intel’s extreme graphics) is used in most laptops to reduce manufacturing costs. Shared architecture is sufficient unless you intend to run intensive 3D games or graphics programs. Remember that the video memory will consume some of your system RAM (512 MB), so plan accordingly.

Hard disk storage space will be in the 30 GB+ range. Don’t get stuck in the “I’ll never need that much capacity” rut and miss out on the best value for your money. You should invest in the largest possible hard disk capacity you can afford, as you will need it all. 40 GB is plenty of storage space for the average laptop user. Purchasing an external USB 2.0 hard drive is a simple way to acquire additional storage capacity.

For people constantly on the go, battery life is crucial. Most computers have a battery life of three to five hours. Mobile P4 laptop battery life is drastically reduced. Lithium-ion batteries are preferable to nickel hydride batteries in every circumstance.

These days, the best bang for your buck is a laptop with a DVD-ROM and CD-RW drive, which is included in most modern laptops. This allows you to read and write CDs as well as DVDs. A computer with a rewritable DVD drive is a good investment if you have a significant disposable income.

You can’t go wrong with Harmon Kardon or Altec Lansing speakers if you want to watch movies, listen to music, or play games on your laptop.

Weight is an essential consideration. Do you want to risk a dislocated shoulder? This means that the lighter your laptop, the better for your health it is. The caveat is that laptops that are less weight tend to be more expensive. Some laptops feature AC adapters the size of a brick and weigh as much as your computer!

Even though most modern computers lack floppy disks, you shouldn’t disregard one’s existence. But have no fear; external USB floppy drives are reasonably priced. Ask the salesperson for a free sample, and he or she will likely comply if making a sale is their goal. Ask him for a complimentary laptop bag while you’re at it.

Invest in a laptop with multiple USB ports to increase its usefulness and flexibility. Verify that the USB ports are USB 2 (the upgraded technology is substantially quicker than the previous USB 1.0). Because the in-built pointing devices are so awkward, you should get a USB mouse as soon as possible.

In addition to having LAN connectivity, all laptops also include built-in modems. Card slots allow you to read and write to memory cards (such as those used in cameras) on some laptops.

Typical laptops come preloaded with Windows XP and some other essential applications. Not even Microsoft Office is provided. It’s up to you to install additional programs. Some businesses offer Linux as an operating system to cut costs, but I suggest going with Windows instead unless you’re strapped for cash. Ensure you keep the original recovery CDs safe, but make copies when you acquire your new laptop. When going on a long trip, take the documents with you.

Now that you have this information buy the most excellent laptop you can afford. You should start your search with laptops from Compaq and Toshiba. In most cases, Compaq will save you money over Toshiba. I used a Compaq laptop initially, but I eventually switched to a Toshiba since I liked it more. This is a matter of taste, so please don’t take it personally. Since Compaq and Toshiba are well-known brands, repairs are not a problem in most countries. Determine where the closest service center is and keep that information close at hand.

A laptop is an investment that is rarely repeated. So, pick wisely. Verify the scope of the warranty, both domestically and abroad. Remember that not all laptop manufacturers will honor international security, and you may have to return the item to the place of purchase. Before you go ahead and buy the laptop, it’s essential to get this straight.

Be careful with your computer. Buy a surge protector to avoid damage. Please don’t touch the notebook while it’s on. Also, the cardinal rule is to never multitask with a hot beverage like tea or coffee and a laptop.

I am an officer in the Merchant Marines stationed in Mumbai. When I’m not at sea, I relax by checking out new music, reading a good book, or swimming. I have learned a lot about computers over the years that might be helpful to others who are not technically savvy. I feel compelled to help others by imparting this knowledge to them.

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